For Teresa Margolles’s first major exhibition in New York since 2002, when she filled a gallery at MoMA PS1 with the vaporized water ordinarily used to wash corpses (Vaporización (Vaporization), 2001), the Mexican artist presents potent sculptural and photographic objects that render visible the inscription of institutionalized violence on both bodies and land along the US-Mexico border. In a gallery located just a mile from Wall Street – the symbolic heart of world financial markets – on an island that colonists swindled from the Lenape, ‘El asesinato cambia el mundo / Assassination changes the world’ links violent exploitation along the borderlands to current and historical states of exception as well as the conditions of late capitalism.
At the entrance, the first of two pieces titled Receipt (all works 2020) – a stack of take-away posters – usefully locates Margolles’s critique. The titular paper slip, enlarged here to fill the poster, evidences the artist’s US$6 purchase of ammunition at the Walmart store in El Paso where, in August 2019, a shooter massacred 22 people, mostly Mexican-Americans. The poster format, which echoes Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s ‘stacked’ works of the 1990s, is a miss: what does it mean to circulate, free of commentary, the image of a legal arms deal? More effective, however, are two related framed works: the original receipt, small and fragile, alongside an exquisite photo of two-dozen red and silver bullets, piled like the bodies they are sold to slaughter (Super Speed / El Paso, Texas).
The exhibition’s main artworks, reached by passing through the type of black vinyl curtain that hangs where dead bodies are processed, are more complex. In the first gallery, spotlights and black pile carpet set the stage for the series ‘El Brillo’: a trio of black garments – a cape, a dress and a bolero – displayed on shop mannequins. Each couture piece is painstakingly hand-made, its surfaces embroidered with gold thread and shards of glass, the latter collected from sites of violence along the border. The results implicate the luxury fashion market – and by extension, art? – in the exploitation of Mexican workers along the border following the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. By summoning visions of the baroque Spanish court, the ghostly garments connect the bloody history of colonial resource extraction to present-day economic imperialism. Most haunting is the bolero, its high neck and spare, sleeveless bodice recalling those killed in the courtly body’s name.
Black beaded curtains, reminiscent of early 20th century European decorative traditions (as well as Gonzalez-Torres, again), yet used today as inexpensive room dividers, separate ‘El Brillo’ from the works in the largest gallery. Here, on the longest wall, hangs the softly lit El manto negro / The black shroud, a grid of 2,300 ceramic tiles burnished to dark brown. Each tile was made by artisans using soil dug from along the US-Mexico border, in an area outside of Júarez known for indigenous pottery traditions. There, the economy and people have become hostage to drug cartels profiting off appetites in the US. The tiles, first developed by Margolles in 2017 during a residency at DAAD in Berlin, resemble in shape and size the brass plaques memorializing those killed by the Nazis. Their elegiac mass is overwhelming, the surface of each mottled like an individual’s skin.
A pair of concrete benches, Dos bancos, made with earth gathered from sites along the border where people have been shot, are installed before the grid. As I sat on one of them, my body supported and my hands enjoying its smooth, cool surface, my comfort felt suddenly complicit. This is Margolles at her strongest, using charged material to subtly inscribe the spectre of death onto an exhibition space, and forcing visitors to consider the human costs of capital.
Main Image: Teresa Margolles, El Brillo: One assassination shapes the world (Un asesinato forma el mundo), (detail), 2020, garment hand-embroidered in goldwork bullion style with glass shards, 24K gold thread, bullion, tulle, display form. Courtesy: the artist
First published in Issue 210